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Social Return on Engagement™

For a few years, Aspen has been working on a project called Social Return on Engagement ™ – a way of explaining and sharing the principles behind good engagement and the impact that it has. This year, as we were finally getting ready to launch our framework, we were faced with a pandemic that changed everything about how we work together. However, it turns out the principles and objectives of engagement really do remain the same.


Every year the Community Connections team partners with CPA (Chartered Accountants) of Alberta to host free Income Tax clinics in the community. Most years though, we don’t usually have much opportunity to engage – the effort is all about booking appointments, checking to see if folks are eligible and making sure people have their documents (t-slips, receipts etc.) and can make it to their appointments. To be honest, we know it meets a need but it doesn’t really align with how we like to do community development.

This year was different. We got our clinics organized, people signed up, and then… the pandemic put everything on lockdown. All of our clinics had to be postponed and we were left, like so many in this strange time, without a clear path forward. And as you have to do in times like those, we had to go back to basics. We reached out to our closest stakeholders – those registered for the clinics and the CPA who make the clinics happen. They immediately punctured our dream of a smooth, online tax prep process. The registrants let us know that they didn’t have the tech, connectivity, or comfort to engage in clinic process online or even over the phone – they were concerned about language barriers as well as technology. The CPA was concerned about how confidential information would be communicated. They weren’t comfortable with e-mail and other common ways of sharing files, but were understandably not able to meet people in person.

We had to find a way to connect with our accountants remotely while keeping residents and staff safe. Ultimately we ended up taking on a much larger portion of the up-front legwork of talking people through paperwork – which led to amazing, deep conversations about how people were coping and where they were struggling. Instead of leaving people with a USB drive packed with resources, we were able to share those resources and connect them, walking them through some of the complicated steps of getting connected to benefits and entitlements that they didn’t know they were eligible for.

On the partnership side, we reached out to the City of Calgary to see if there was any space that was not on full lock-down; anywhere we could set up shop with one or two computers and host residents one at a time, with support, to sign consents and connect remotely with a volunteer. Not just the City, but many partners came through, sharing their space and their trust in us to make sure that the clinic was done in a safe way and that we all met our goals of supporting the community, even in crisis. We also partnered with the City to go door knocking, but instead of asking a lot of questions, we knocked on doors, backed up a few meters, and just checked in. We asked how people were holding up and if they knew about what resources are available in the community. People were happy for the info, but in lots of cases were just as happy to see us and know that we were invested in them.

People were happy for the info, but in lots of cases were just as happy to see us and know that we were invested in them.

— Ad Farshori, Community Development Worked & SROE Committee Member

In our in-person-but-remote tax clinics we had the same experience. We met with people and chatted about the oddity of the situation we were facing together. We laughed through masks and heard people share with us how hard things had been and how much of a difference it made to connect. As hard and as time consuming as it was to do things this way, we saw that the time spent investing in where people were at and working with them – community residents and partners alike – led to more understanding, deeper collaboration, and ultimately more action than we typically achieve in tax season. In one case we even engaged a complete bystander to help get someone’s car out of a vehicle trap! Now that’s community energy at work.

Typed up by Victoria Maldonado – based on the enthusiastic storytelling of Ad Farshori, Community Development Worker with Community Connections and SROE™ Committee member